By Alexandra Chachkevitch, Tribune Reporter
3:50 PM EDT, July 2, 2013
North Shore residents flocking to farmers markets this summer should keep in mind that "locally grown" vegetables and fruits aren't always from a field just down the road.
As their popularity grows across the state and country, the organizers of farmers markets are left to define which fresh produce to consider local.
"It's really up to that market to have defined rules and go by them," said Pat Stieren, executive director of the relatively new Illinois Farmers Market Association.
Since 1994, the number of farmers markets in Illinois has more than tripled, from 97 to more than 350, gaining at least 80 new ones in the past five years, said Stieren, a chairman of Illinois Farmers Market Task Force created by the state in 2011. The Chicago area and collar counties now boast about 150 farmers markets, Stieren said.
Usually, "locally grown" produce can be defined as vegetables, fruit, and products such as cheese and eggs that come from within a 150- to 200-mile radius of a farmers market, Stieren said.
She noted that each market allows for a certain percentage of its offerings to be locally grown and can include nonlocal products that can be processed, such as olives, or not be edible at all — such as knives.
Although at heart every market's purpose is to provide fresh and local produce — and stimulate the regional economy — each one has its own history and rules, depending on the needs of the community, Stieren said.
On the North Shore, markets vary in size, rules, and types of management.
Northbrook's farmers market, located downtown this season for the first time, is run by volunteers, has about 15 vendors. It's only 5 years old.
Glenview's farmers market, located for the first time this year on the historic Wagner Farm's grounds, is supported by the Glenview Park District and other local government grants, has about 30 vendors, and has been around since 1988.
Stieren's Illinois Farmers Market Association was created about a year ago in response to the growing trend and is a nonprofit that aims to educate farmers market managers and farmers about state regulations and best operation practices.
The organization, which had its first conference in March, hopes to research the different rules and reach a consensus within the communities in order to eventually come up with a consistent set of statewide administrative regulations for farmers markets, working together with the Illinois Farmers Market Task Force.
Illinois, which has been late in jumping on the bandwagon, can look to states such as California, where each farmers market goes through a certification process, Stieren said.
But Stieren said the goal is not to impose restrictions.
"The key thing is what are the needs of each community," Stieren said, adding that Southern Illinois is very different from the Chicago area. "It's not a 'one size fits all' equation."
Organizers of farmers markets who may not agree with each other on certain practices can co-exist, Stieren said.
For example, last year's drought put some farmers markets in a difficult position due to a shortage of peaches and other tree fruits.
Oak Park's farmer's market, which some regard as a leader in strictly having only "locally grown" vegetables and fruits on its stands, even suspended at least one of its vendors, Walt Skibbe, for one week for selling apples he purchased from his neighbors, who had better luck with the weather.
Skibbe, 73, a southwest Michigan farmer who supplies vegetables and fruits to at least seven farmers markets in Illinois, including Northbrook and Deerfield, said he understands the need for strict rules some markets have.
"I know people who develop businesses selling and reselling," said Skibbe, of Eau Claire, Mich., who has grown vegetables and fruits on about 100 acres of his land for about 47 years. "And they don't raise nothin'."
But weather conditions can make a farmer's life unpredictable and tough, Skibbe said.
"You lose too much money," he said.
Most farmers markets agree that bringing nonlocal vendors harms the regional economy in the long run, Stieren said.
Skibbe's case drew different perspectives from organizers of North Shore farmers markets.
At the Glenview Farmers Market, Skibbe might not have been disciplined at all last year, since he declared where his apples came from.
In the summer of 2012, vendors could carry produce grown on trees — apples, peaches, cherries — from other states, such as Tennessee and Pennsylvania. They just had to have signs saying where it came from, said Roxanne Junge, manager of Glenview's farmers market.
Junge said the decision to bend the normal rules of allowing only vendors within about 200 miles to supply their own fresh produce was difficult.
"We want our local farmers to become prosperous … and still be in business down the road," Junge said, adding that she expanded Glenview's farmers market's radius after seeing the devastation of the crops herself while traveling to the farms during inspections.
This season, however, Glenview's farmers market reverted to not allowing produce grown more than 200 miles away.
Junge said she was happy with the decision, saying that the signs that declared where the produce came from educated the community about the effects of the weather on farmers.
But Northbrook Farmers Market Manager Dale Duda remained firm about the rule.
"We're not a grocery store," said Duda, adding that Northbrook only allows vendors from within a 150-mile radius.
She explained that not having certain produce because of weather problems teaches people about the unpredictability of farming.
Duda is unable to visit distant farms, but tries to make sure farmers she works with have good recommendations and are honest about where their food comes from.
"People do lie," Duda said. She once kicked out a vendor she found reselling tomatoes.
"But the fact of the matter is, it's such a close-knit community that we know who they are. And some farmers markets don't mind that."
Residents are encouraged to ask their farmers market managers about where the locally grown produce comes from and talk to the farmers about how they grow it, Stieren said.
"It's up to the customers to know about the market and up to the market to promote what they have," Stieren said.
The most "local" vegetables offered at Glenview's farmers market come from about 13 miles away — in Lincolnshire, grown at the Didier Farms. The fruit is delivered from Chicago Heights-based Zeldenrust Farm Market, which is located about 50 miles south of Glenview.
At Northbrook's farmers market, customers can enjoy vegetables grown in town by residents of Glenkirk, a nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities. Produce offered by Harvard-based Twin Garden Farms is the second closest vendor, located about 52 miles from Northbrook.
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